The basketball season always dawns at the most beautiful time of the year in New Orleans. The disgusting blanket of summer finally lifts. Oyster season begins, and hurricane season comes to an end. And the fresh breath of an autumn breeze is matched only by the sweet promise of distraction from disastrous Sunday afternoons in Saints country.
There's something about that crispness in the air that excites the hell out of sportswriters. Last year, with the New Orleans Pelicans coming off a wild late-season push and playoff appearance, plus a new coach and sky-high expectations for a burgeoning superstar, I filled these pages with effusiveness and excitement.
Boy, was I wrong.
Hobbled by injuries and with a roster beset by lackluster shooters who couldn't play much defense, the Pelicans limped to a 1-11 start. It was a demoralizing hole out of which they never were able to climb. The team finished the season with just 30 wins, and only nine victories on the road.
Be prepared for much the same this year. The Pelicans have turned over a good chunk of their roster — again. They are physically depleted and hurting, with a ton of money sitting on the bench or in the doctor's office — again. At a time when Anthony Davis was scheduled to begin blossoming into a bona fide phenomenon, the 2016-17 Pelicans season is shaping up to be yet another "rebuilding" year.
"One of the things that's discouraging at times, is the Saints and the Pelicans — and I hate to draw the parallels but they are both owned and operated by the same people — have the two greatest athletes to ever play for New Orleans in Drew Brees and Anthony Davis," says Fletcher Mackel, sports anchor at WDSU-TV. "They've got two guys — the right guys — doing the right things the right way, except the leadership around them just can't seemingly get it right."
Anthony Davis, all 6-foot-11, 250 pounds of him, is inarguably one of the best players in the National Basketball Association. But Davis regressed last year. He averaged an incredible 24.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and two blocked shots in the 61 games in which he appeared, but failed to make any of the three All-NBA teams, missing out on a whopping $24 million bonus payday.
Late last season, Davis underwent the first serious medical procedure of his career to relieve a chronic, painful condition called "jumper's knee," which comes from overstressing the tendon attached to the kneecap. He missed the last part of the season and has been on limited minutes of play in training camp and during preseason. Davis also has been nursing a tear in his left shoulder since his rookie year and has been playing through the pain.
"I don't know how many 23-year-olds think about their legacy in the way that he does," says Brett Dawson, who until recently was the Pelicans beat writer for The New Orleans Advocate. "He wants to be thought of as one of the greatest players who ever played. But there's a ceiling on how great you can be considered if you don't win."
Davis is entering the first season of a five-year, almost $145 million contract. An organization signs a transformative player, then spends years building a team around him. General Manager Dell Demps' attempts have been a bust so far, but he's been given a rare second opportunity to craft a winning organization around his superstar.
It takes years to develop talent into a winning squad. A small-market team like New Orleans, which doesn't have a culture and history of winning and has lots of money tied up in big contracts, tends to happen upon talented players through the draft or find bargains in free agency.
"It's not like they're not trying to put the right pieces around Anthony Davis," WDSU's Mackel says. "A for effort. F for execution."
Over the offseason, the team shed some familiar faces. One-dimensional players were replaced with better fits for coach Alvin Gentry's uptempo style, which is designed to take advantage of Davis' wow moments.
Perhaps the most exciting acquisition is Chavano "Buddy" Hield, who was selected sixth overall in this year's draft. A native of the Bahamas, Hield played for University of Oklahoma and was one of the top college players in the country. The guard was the Big 12 Player of the Year, is said to have an infectious, upbeat personality and is a talented shooter from beyond the arc.
"Hield didn't shoot the ball well in summer league, but his reputation coming out of college is as an elite 3-point shooter," Dawson says. "That's something that they need, an additional player to kind of stretch the floor, so he will play a big part."
The Pelicans also picked up guards E'Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway, and forward Solomon Hill. They're decent shooters but stand to greatly improve the Pelicans' defense.
Coming into this year, three of the team's five probable starters will be out with injuries. Center Omer Asik has been playing through injuries and is expected to have to compete with Alexis Ajinca for the fourth starting spot.
"In the end, professional sports is a results business," Mackel says. "No other franchise is going to feel sorry for (the Pelicans). Seemingly every season there's something they're dealing with, and in the end the results aren't there. I'm not sure the results are going to be there this season either."
The Pelicans have been beset by injuries and tragedies for years.
The girlfriend of former forward Ryan Anderson, who went to the Houston Rockets this summer along with guard Eric Gordon, committed suicide in 2013. Then Anderson suffered two herniated discs in his neck. Gordon missed much of several seasons with lingering injuries. Former coach Monty Williams' wife was killed in a car crash, and in May, guard Bryce Dejean-Jones — who was out for the season recuperating from a wrist surgery — was shot dead at a Dallas apartment complex.
Then there is the saga of Jrue Holiday, the all-star guard who came from the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013 for a dear price, but who struggled with a nagging leg injury. He had begun to show a return to form at the end of the last season, until an elbow to the face fractured his eye socket.
Now Holiday is on indefinite leave to care for his wife, Lauren, an Olympic soccer star who retired from sports last year to start a family. Lauren recently gave birth to a daughter but is preparing to undergo brain surgery to remove a tumor. Through it all, the team has told Jrue to focus on his family. He may not appear on the court for months to come.
So what do we have to look forward to, anyway? Seeing your hometown team lose, and lose, and then win! And then lose some more. It can be demoralizing.
But there's nothing quite like an NBA game, intimate and frenetic and hilarious. Many seats put you close to the action, with players sometimes jumping literally in your lap. Many of the world's greatest athletes, like Steph Curry and LeBron James, will pass through on a regular basis. And even if you're in the uppermost of the upper deck, a basketball game is still way more personal and intimate than, say, anywhere in the cavernous Superdome or Tiger Stadium.
And, thanks to some quick work by the city's sports event boosters, New Orleans again will host the NBA All-Star game. It's scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 19. That's on top of the twelve Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans that weekend.
With lowered expectations comes a lower bar for success, and making the playoffs would be a major coup for this team. But 82 games makes for a long season, and a first-round playoff appearance is absolutely doable as players come back into the lineup from their injuries. I'll be keeping my eye on the Pels, and hoping for the best.